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The Great Inns of Vermont

When was the last time you solved a jigsaw puzzle? Slept for 10 hours straight? Drank a glass of whole milk?

When were you last in Vermont?

This past fall I set out in search of Vermont's finest inns. It was October, and I had a craving for penny candy and the smell of wood smoke. I expected to find great places—and no real surprises. This was Vermont, after all. How many ways can you say "cozy clapboard Colonial"?

I found six very different inns in six very different places. There's the majestic brick mansion on the shores of Lake Champlain; the 200-year-old house where Kipling vacationed, in the state's most idyllic village; the luxurious Green Mountains resort with one of the country's best wine lists. Anyone who thinks Vermont knows only one note hasn't been there lately.

When were you last in Vermont?

A Manor on the Lake
Inn at Shelburne Farms

Shelburne Farms takes you back to the days when men wore muttonchops, bathtubs had feet, and all the children's table manners were above average. Everything, from the leather armchairs to the andirons, is twice normal size. Lila Vanderbilt and her husband, Dr. William Seward Webb, built this sprawling Queen Anne- style mansion a century ago; the house was converted to a 24-room inn in 1986. This is still a working dairy farm with an on-site environmental education center, and the nearby Shelburne Museum has a vast collection of Vermont artifacts.

You won't be bothered here by alarm clocks, in-room faxes, and other modern intrusions. You also won't find any heat beyond the hearths downstairs, so pack layers if you're here after Labor Day. (The inn is closed from mid-October to mid-May.) Luxury takes on a different meaning at Shelburne Farms. Guests don't come for fluffy bathrobes. And you can't light the fireplace in your room—landmark laws prohibit it. That said, who cares?You're lord of the manor. Borrow a canoe to ply the waves of Lake Champlain. Vermont looks more like Maine up here—flat, rocky, waterbound. Sea-gulls roost in the pastures. Ask for a picnic lunch of smoked-cheddar sandwiches, and wander the Frederick Law Olmsted- designed grounds. You can walk all day—around the English-style gardens, down to the ramshackle dairy, or out to the 1886 Farm Barn, one of the most magnificent rural buildings this side of the Mason-Dixon Line.

You could also drive into Burlington to find shops and nightlife and young couples in Patagonia jackets, but that would spoil the fantasy. Better to stick to your 1,400-acre private reserve, puffing on a pipe and reading Henry James.

Dinner is where the few contemporary touches sneak in. My spicy corn and lobster chowder was topped with cilantro crème fraÓche and served with crisp tortillas. I could have been in Santa Fe, had it not been for the flocked burgundy wallpaper and checkerboard marble floor. Good old tradition has its part: I had a splendid rack of lamb with apple-sorrel relish.

My first room, the bright and spare South Room, was almost too capacious—the scale of Shelburne Farms can make you feel dwarfed. I preferred the less awkward layout of the Brown Room, with its maple-and-molasses tones.

Children are welcome at the inn, and they'll love the giant dollhouses in the attic. The rest of the building may be a little stuffy for them, unless they're in a Louisa May Alcott phase. For grown-ups, the thrill of Shelburne Farms is the chance to play the part of William and Lila Webb, ruling quietly over these bluffs, if only for a weekend.

102 Harbor Rd., Shelburne; 802/985-8498; doubles from $170; open May 17- October 19.

The Quintessential Village Inn
Old Tavern

The tiny village of Grafton is almost unsettlingly perfect. You couldn't construct a better model of Vermont life, not if you had millions—unless you were the Windham Foundation, a nonprofit collective that has spent just that restoring this colonial hamlet. But Grafton isn't Epcot New England. There's a genuine village here, with actual residents who are like everyone else—only they look better, because they live in Grafton. In the early 19th century Grafton was a thriving mill town on the Boston- Montreal stage route; the Old Tavern, which opened in 1801, was eventually visited by Ulysses S. Grant, Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, and Rudyard Kipling. By the end of the century the region's wool industry was failing, and Grafton faded into the surrounding woods. Then, in 1963, a pair of philanthropists created the Windham Foundation, which has since restored 55 buildings here, including the Old Tavern.

Grafton still holds town meetings, and you can read the minutes displayed outside the post office:

1. On the matter of the Muelrath driveway. A. Board unhappy with response Muelraths have given on subject of fixing their driveway. After lengthy discussion it was agreed that Gregory would meet the Muelraths in their driveway at 8 a.m. Tuesday to go over what was needed to fix the problem.

As you pull up to the inn at sunset, seeing a light in each window and a porch full of rocking chairs, it's hard to decide what to do first. Should you calmly unload your suitcases and check in?Or should you jump from the car to catch the last of the sunset from one of those rockers?This is how outsiders visit Vermont. There are so many possibilities for idling, you tend to panic trying to fit them all in.

I loved the leather-bound editions of the Rubaiyat and Anna Karenina in the inn's library.

I loved the Irish knit sweater draped over a wing chair, as if this were someone's house. And I especially loved the pub, carved out of a two-story wooden barn and decorated with hunting and farming artifacts.

There are 14 guest rooms in the Main Tavern, 52 others in eight buildings scattered about town. I was shown across the street to my room in the 1858 Homestead House, where I found a maple four-poster bed with a lace canopy, a pair of well-placed reading lamps, and a surprisingly comfortable Shaker-style desk. Dormers let in the sound of a rushing creek. When the old wooden door silently shut and locked itself behind me, I realized this was a subtly contemporized version of the past, one with oiled hinges, thermostats, and carefully concealed elevators. The Old Tavern is like a freshly paved country road—you get all the scenery without any of the bumps.

I'd planned on a nap, but having seen the pub and its big fireplace, I decided to have a drink instead. The bartender with the handlebar mustache suggested a bottle of McNeill's, a Vermont ale that I've been trying to track down ever since. The World Series was on, and although the inn was nearly full, only one guest was up in the pub's TV lounge. The others were quietly enjoying bottles of Merlot, some assembling jigsaw puzzles.

I had heard good things about dinner at the Old Tavern, so I was surprised to find my meal rather dull. The setting was lovely, if stodgy, in a low-ceilinged room with equestrian paintings and Chippendale chairs, and the menu was certainly extensive, with 16 entrées (since cut down to five) and a page of specials. I did enjoy the inn's trademark cheddar-and-ale soup. But the entrées were uninspired: a lot of baked fish. My simple almond trout didn't live up to the waitress's recommendation. I may have been jaded after the up-to-date cooking at some other inns. (And besides, who wants chipotle salsa served on antique pewter?)

Before checking out the next morning, I borrowed a bicycle and rode to the Grafton Village Cheese Company to stock up on chutneys, jams, and cheddar. Following the river, I made it past the historic zone. I even spotted a mobile home within the town limits, concealed by a stand of pines. But I soon came back to Grafton's Village Store, beside the inn, where I considered buying a fireball or a bottle of sarsaparilla—something small-towny.

On my way out the door I passed a trio of skate punks in Nine Inch Nails T-shirts who were idling on the porch. "Morning," they said, popping the caps off their sarsaparillas.
Main St., Grafton; 800/843-1801 or 802/843-2231, fax 802/843-2245; doubles from $125, including continental breakfast; open year-round.

A Sybaritic Retreat
Inn at Sawmill Farm

I knew I was at a different sort of inn when I found the latest issues of Vogue and Fortune on my bedside table. The Inn at Sawmill Farm, Vermont's only Relais & Châteaux property, is quite an accomplishment: this converted barn, with its creaky floorboards and rough-hewn beams, is at once the most rustic of the inns I visited, and the most urbane.

I arrived just past sundown, frustrated by a longer-than-expected drive (Vermont may be small, but its back roads go on forever). All that vanished as I passed through the courtyard, under a majestic stand of birches illuminated by spotlights. I was reminded, in a strange moment of displacement, of an evening at the Bel-Air Hotel in L.A., certainly not the flash you'd expect in the Green Mountains. But there it was: the mist rising from the pool; the rich scent of burning wood; the bungalows hidden in their groves. And let's not forget the three Jaguars in the parking lot.

Inside the 1803 main barn the mood is thoroughly New England. Copper pots and kettles hang over the brick fireplace in the living room. Ten of the 20 guest rooms are in this building; the rest are in five separate cottages. These tend to have fireplaces and whirlpool tubs, and each has its own character: Cider House II is a snug suite with a canopy bed and Federal blue trim; the Woodshed feels more like an A-frame lodge, with a towering window overlooking a pond.

I was led down a cedar clapboard hallway to my room, No. 9, which seemed to have a gender-identity problem: alongside the candy-stripe wallpaper, pink bedsheets, and floral chintz curtains were some exposed white barn timbers. (Maybe this was Rita Hayworth's farm.) Vivaldi chirped from a tiny speaker on the wall. (Sounds cloying, somehow isn't; I didn't even notice it until later that night.) There are no phones in the rooms. No locks on the doors, either, the night clerk pointed out. I shouldn't worry. I wasn't worried, but I did wonder whether the car alarms were on in those Jaguars. After following the piped-in classics down to the dining room—the music permeates the place, like plush carpeting—I found myself seated near a vacationing senator. I could have curled up with the wine list as a bedtime story: the inn has a 36,000-bottle cellar that leans heavily on France, as does the food. I considered the curried scallops for a first course but instead tried the wild-mushroom tart (excellent, remarkably rich), then passed over the frog's legs in Riesling in favor of venison that made me forget everything else.

Evenings are for the sybarite in you, mornings for the country squire. The ponds are stocked with trout; catch one, and the chef will prepare it. The inn's 19 gentle acres are ideal for short hikes, or for Nordic skiing in winter (Mount Snow's downhill trails are right up the road). The town of West Dover is really just a strip


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